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One year later
Letter to Ministers

ARC Victoria's interpretation of Delgamuukw

by Wally Braul

The Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the Gitksan/Wet'suwet'en aboriginal title case is one of the most important cases in the history of the country. This decision places the reality of aboriginal tile squarely on the treaty negotiating table. The Chief Justice concluded by saying, "Let us face it, we are all here to stay." The case should force governments and industry to change the way they do business and make decisions on lands which may be subject to aboriginal title claims. The Chief Justice stated that

"… the Crown is under a moral if not a legal duty to enter into and conduct those negotiations in good faith."

One of the many important features of the decision is that it soundly rejected the trial judge's approach to attributing little if any weight to the oral evidence of elders.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the decision is the following reasoning on the subject of aboriginal rights and title:

Aboriginal title encompasses the right to exclusive use and occupation of the land held pursuant to that title for a variety of purposes, which need not be aspects of those aboriginal practices, customs and traditions which are integral to distinctive aboriginal cultures. The protected uses must not be irreconcilable with the nature of the group's attachment to that land.

Aboriginal title is sui generis, and so distinguished from other proprietary interests, and characterized by several dimensions. It is inalienable and cannot be transferred, sold or surrendered to anyone other than the Crown. Another dimension of aboriginal title is its sources: its recognition by the Royal Proclamation,1763 and the relationship between the common law which recognizes occupation as proof of possession and systems of aboriginal law pre-existing assertion of British sovereignty. Finally, aboriginal title is held communally.

The exclusive right to use the land is not restricted to the right to engage in activities which are aspects of aboriginal practices, customs and traditions integral to the claimant group's distinctive aboriginal culture. Canadian jurisprudence on aboriginal title frames the "right to occupy and possess" in broad terms and, significantly, is not qualified by the restriction that use be tied to practice, custom or tradition. The nature of the Indian interest in reserve land which has been found to be the same as the interest in tribal lands is very broad and incorporates present-day needs. Finally, aboriginal title encompasses mineral rights and lands held pursuant to aboriginal title should be capable of exploitation. Such a use is certainly not a traditional one.

The content of aboriginal title contains an inherent limit in that lands so held cannot be used in a manner that is irreconcilable with the nature of the claimants' attachment to those lands. This inherent limit arises because the relationship of an aboriginal community with its land should not be prevented from continuing into the future. Occupancy is determined by reference to the activities that have taken place on the land and the uses to which the land has been put by the particular group. If lands are so occupied, there will exist a special bond between the group and the land in question such that the land will be part of the definition of the group's distinctive culture. Land held by virtue of aboriginal title may not be alienated because the land has an inherent and unique value in itself, which is enjoyed by the community with aboriginal title to it. The community cannot put the land to uses which would destroy that value. Finally, the importance of the continuity of the relationship between an aboriginal community and its land, and the non-economic or inherent value of that land, should not be taken to detract from the possibility of surrender to the Crown in exchange for valuable consideration. On the contrary, the idea of surrender reinforces the conclusion that aboriginal title is limited. If aboriginal peoples wish to use their lands in a way that aboriginal title does not permit, then they must surrender those lands and convert them into non-title lands to do so.

Aboriginal title at common law was recognized well before 1982 and is accordingly protected in its full form by s. 35(1). The constitutionalization of common law aboriginal rights, however, does not mean that those rights exhaust the content of s. 35(1). The existence of an aboriginal right at common law is sufficient, but not necessary, for the recognition and affirmation of that right by s. 35(1).

ARC (Victoria) has enjoyed a long and positive relationship with the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en people. For example, one of our members (Jack Thornburgh) suggested in the spring of 1988 to carry out a run from Hazelton to Victoria to raise funds for the court case. Months of planning followed as we assembled a team of runners, drivers and a massage therapist. Native and church groups along the way billeted the team and organized public information meetings in the evenings. We raised $10,000 for the court case. Don Ryan, President of the Tribal Council, presented us with a beautiful talking stick and said we could speak for them any time. When the trial decision came down in 1991, many of our members were at the court house with our friends, Don Ryan, Herb George and many others. The decision was met with disbelief. However, they have never given up - an inspiration for all Canadians!